A cattle herder and his family who reside in the dunes of Timbuktu find their quiet lives — which are typically free of the Jihadists determined to control their faith — abruptly disturbed.
‘Timbuktu’ is a quietly important film from Abderrahmane Sissako about the occupation of the city by Islamic extremists. The focus of the film is on several different characters, and we get to see the view of both the extremists and the townsfolk going about their daily lives which helps to provide a balanced view of the situation. The townsfolk are primarily shown as quietly indignant, content to cede to the unreasonable demands of the occupiers without causing too much of a fuss. Initially this seems to be a standard reaction to accept their fate, but it becomes clearer further on in the narrative that the reaction is to avoid the extreme punishments they may face for breaking Sharia Law. On the flipside, the occupiers are shown to be hypocrites who enjoy many of the things they have outlawed, with one in particular enjoying cigarettes, and a group of Frenchmen discussing football whilst preventing the townsfolk from playing it themselves.
One of the worrying aspects Sissako shows in his portrayal of the extremists is how little many of them seem to understand about the laws they are trying to enforce, with many shown as fairly young boys who have been seduced by the ‘cause’. The decision to portray the extremists as normal human beings with a different belief system helps to avoid shading them as outright villains, whilst not compromising on the despicable way in which they treat the townsfolk. The opening sequences introduce us to many of the key characters in the film, with several comical moments thrown in that help to add a bit of levity to proceedings (I particularly enjoyed the ‘imaginary’ football game), and we see the local imam trying to talk reason into the extremists. For this, they listen but don’t change.
Towards the end of the film, events that were set in motion start to pay off with tragic consequences, yet Sissako manages to render some of these moments with beautiful imagery. One such example is a scene where two locals have an argument about a cow getting stuck in a net in the water, and both men scramble to a different side of the water’s edge, with the camera moving to a wide lens to capture both men from a birds eye position. It’s stark and unsettling, yet undoubtedly a moving sequence. In ‘Timbuktu’, Sissako has crafted a quiet and subtle piece of cinema about a city living under Islamic occupation, wisely choosing to avoid hysteria and overt drama for something deeper.
Directed By: Abderrahmane Sissako
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Pino Desperado, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehdi A.G. Mohamed, Hichem Yacoubi, Kettly Noel and Fatoumata Diaware